May 11, 2016

Hackathons - the corporate sports league

A new generation of sports is rising. But in the corporate world, we have a new rising cyber sport of our own: hackathons.

The e-sports market (video game competitions) started growing in the early 2000s, and is expected to become a billion dollar business by 2019. Drone racing is much newer, but some speculate that it will grow to be something even bigger. As robotics evolve, games like Robot Soccer World Cup and MegaBots are likely to gain more traction.

But in the corporate world, we have a new rising cyber sport of our own: hackathons. These were reportedly on the rise in the US as early as in 2012, and 2015 was the first big year for hackathons in the Nordics.

The evolution of hackathons in the Nordics

As I’ve been organising and following up on hackathons in Finland, I have noticed companies taking them more and more seriously. When a significant industry player organises such an event, it creates a platform for potential partners, vendors and new startups to show off their chops. A change that I’ve observed is that hack teams are not all newcomers anymore, but some individuals and even some corporate or agency teams are becoming specialised in hackathons.

Professional hack teams are in the game to deliver a message: if you have a technology or business challenge, we will be able to solve it for you. Winning is not always the point so much as a solid performance and memorable pitch for the hackathon jury at the end of the race. Next time the hacker team’s company sends a quote for the host organisation, they are guaranteed to see them in a different light. This is powerful marketing - and very honest, since the results of your work stand as evidence.

What's in it for me?

If you want to find out what all the buzz is about, a valid approach is to gear up a hacker team from your organisation to sign up for the next hackathon challenge.

If you are thinking about the best mix of competences, my advice is to combine skills in the three areas I call the holy triangle: business, technology and design. A dream team understands the business context and fills in the Lean Canvas, has empathy for the end-user and designs their experience, and has the dev skills to build a functioning MVP or prototype within the time constraints of the hackathon. Diversity is also usually considered a strength.

You might also want to consider mixing new employees with more experienced hackers, as hackathons are an immense opportunity for competence development, too. You will learn about technology, an industry and their business, and about the host organisation. You will also learn new things about your colleagues and working together - and even yourself.

What does the host organisation gain?

Based on what I’ve seen, the biggest winner in this sport is the host company - as long as the event is professionally facilitated and everybody gets a good experience. They get an accelerated burst in research/brainstorming/development in the field of their choice. This can expand their thinking in a given area in a massive way - or, if the hack teams come up with familiar ideas, it’s proof and validation for existing concepts.

The event is also an opportunity to strengthen your network of relationships, and it offers recruitment possibilities too, especially if you partner up with universities and invite students to participate in the hack.

The hackathon can also be a vehicle for cultural change within an organisation. Setting up an arena of interesting opportunities with technology, data and business challenges requires cross-unit and cross-disciplinary collaboration. After such an experience people will notice the difference if they are sent back to silos, and are likely to start driving a change to get back into the collaborative flow state.

For many companies, arranging a hackathon is also a public declaration that they innovate openly in ecosystems, which is the winning formula we at the Tieto Experience Hub also believe in. If you are planning to host a hackathon, we are happy to support you to arrange a successful event experience and to maximise the business value you get from it.

The hackathon corporate sport is here, and it offers a lot of opportunities. Do you want to be a spectator, an athlete or start running a league of your own?

Read more about Tieto Experience Hub and Customer Experience Management.

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